Friday, January 31, 2014

Michael5000 vs. Dickens: "Barnaby Rudge"

2012 Assessment: I definitely haven't read it.

Current Reading: Eye-read in a cheapish ~100 year old edition.

Barnaby Rudge is ultimately a historical novel about the Gordon Riots of 1780. Writing 50 to 60 years after the fact, Dickens had access to people who remembered this period of London unrest first-hand. This immediacy, along with his overstated but basically sound analysis of mob behavior, makes the riot scenes the most vivid and interesting in the book. But there is, I’m afraid, not a lot of competition for this honor.

I am composing this writeup on with paper and pen, believe it or not, as I am away from the various machines for the nonce. That puts me in the unheard-of situation of not being able to instantly call up the chronology of Dickens’ novels. But, Barnaby Rudge pretty much has to be one of the first ones, one written while he was still learning his craft. It’s definitely by Charles Dickens – all of his signature characteristics are here. It’s just that Barnaby Rudge isn’t very, you know, good. Actually, it’s more what you might call “kinda bad.”

Any Dickens is going to have some aspects that seem like flaws to We Moderns, of course. They rely on Amazing Coincidence. They are sentimental. They have characters that are one-dimensional caricatures. The good guys are often too good to be true, and the bad guys are sometimes too bad to be true. In Barnaby Rudge, though, all of these flaws are turned up to – well, not up to “eleven,” really, not if you’ve read other Victorian authors. But up to six or seven, anyway, which is high enough to break the pain threshold for sensitive readers. The Amazing Coincidences are ludicrous, the sentimentality is maudlin, and the only characters who aren’t all virtue or all wickedness are a pair who are suffering from mental disabilities.

What is good in Dickens is his prose, his ability to analyze or lampoon the manners of his times, and his keen understanding of human behavior. The prose of Barnaby Rudge, though, is middlin’ to sometimes awful, with great walls of exposition where Dickens tells us what we could reasonably expect him to show us. The pacing is all wrong too, and we are marched through a not-especially-interesting 400 pages or so of character development before we really even know what the book is going to be about. There are some gothic touches – an unavenged murder! Perhaps a ghost! – that are periodically picked up, dusted off, and put back in storage, without ever becoming important or interesting. And where are the sharp, nuanced portrayals of behavior and society? In Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House, that’s where.

Plot: By extension from the logic of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, you might expect this one to be the story of Barnaby Rudge. But he’s actually pretty far down the cast list, and it is one of the mysteries of the book for me why he gets title billing. He’s an unusual character for a Victorian to take on, a mentally retarded young man accompanied everywhere by his best friend, a trained raven. Dickens is not entirely up to the task of writing Barnaby, however, and the character's level of comprehension and his vocabulary is constantly shifting to fit the current needs of the story.

So anyway, plot: there’s this innkeeper who is stifling his son, who is in love with the daughter of the locksmith, whose wife’s petty, manipulative maid has a thing for his sullen apprentice; oh, and down the road there’s a manor house, the lord of which has a daughter who is in love with… oh, the hell with it. There are some 20 to 30 people, some of whom hate each other and others of whom love each other, and all of them will eventually get caught up in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and some Amazing Coincidences will occur.

..and when I have internet access again, I’ll find out whether Barnaby Rudge is generally considered lesser Dickens by other humans, or if I’m just a big grump this week.

INTERNET ACCESS AGAIN: Well! It turns out that this is the fifth novel that Dickens published. It was however the first he started, and he picked it up and put it down for a number of years, which may have something to do with the pacing problems. After a run of four hits, Barnaby Rudge was Dickens’ first flop, ultimately selling only a third as many copies as its immediate predecessor, The Old Curiosity Shop. "Barnaby Rudge met with little favour in its day,” says the Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, “and (with notable exceptions) that judgment persists. Its modern bibliographer, Thomas Rice, calls it 'the least loved and the least read' of Dicken's books." A recent and fairly high-profile appraisal in the Guardian calls it “one of Dickens's most neglected, but most rewarding, novels,” which is clear additional evidence that it is generally considered a real dog.

Obviously, I feel like I got the answer right. You may praise me for my discernment, or damn me for my conventional tastes.

Prognosis: In reviewing Martin Chuzzlewit, I said that "Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors." I'll stand by that. Third-rank Dickens might however be given a miss.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 8/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.

Second Opinion: This guy is a little more sympathetic.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round 3: Daumier v. Degas

Honoré Daumier
1808 - 1879

Beat Dutch master Gerard David easily in Round 1.
Tied the Classical Revolutionary Jacques-Louis David in Round 2.
Beat Thomas Gainsborough and his Blue Boy in Round 2 Tiebreak.

Edgar Degas
1834 - 1917

Whupped it up on sculptor Richard Deacon in Round 1.
Stomped on Eugène Delacroix in Round 2.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Wednesday Post

Ask not for whom the Wednesday Post comes!
It comes for thee.

A Wednesday Post Giveaway!

Due to a serendipitous confusion in the matter of wish lists, Mrs.5000 and myself emerged from Christmas with no fewer than six fine-arts jigsaw puzzles.  They are pretty cool.  Solving them, you can combine a detailed study of an artist's brush technique with such time-honored tactics such as "sorting out all the green ones" or "looking for one with the doohicky at kind of a funny angle."

 We completed Breugel's Tower of Babel in the first half of January.

A few days later, we took it back apart to make room for a Monet.

Perhaps you would like to be the next person to put it together!  It is 1000 pieces, of which 999 are good as new and one nearly so, having been skillfully relaminated (if I do say so myself) after having been found floating in the cat's water bowl.  We were careful when we took it apart, and 99% sure that all pieces are there.

If you would like to have this puzzle sent to you in the post -- perhaps the Wednesday post! -- just say so in the comments.  If multiple people want it, the winner will be chosen by some sort of random deal.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament Left Bracket Third-Round Elimination: GRUDGE MATCH: Bazille v. Beckmann!

It's another proud day to be a member of the Infinite Art Community, as we drag the Left Bracket into the semi-finals via the FIRST EVER MATCH IN THIRD-ROUND ELIMINATION!!!

Not only that, it's a Grudge Match.  Frederic Bazille got knocked out by Max Beckmann in Round 2, but has since won three straight to stay alive in the wild and wooly Left Bracket.  Beckmann himself fell to Basquiat in Round 3, but won his next match and advances to meet his old opponent.  Remember: according to the Grudge Match Rule, this contest can not result in a tie.  Beckmann, who won the first pairing, advances unless Bazille beats him outright.

Leaving us this week are Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (3-2-1; 47vf, 30 va) and the great American naturalist, John James Audubon (2-2-0; 32vf, 28va).

Frederic Bazille
1841 - 1870

Max Beckmann
1884 - 1950
German; worked in Netherlands and U.S.
  • Defeated Gentile Bellini in Round 1.
  • Edged out nineteenth century Frenchman Frederic Bazille in Round 2 by two votes -- YOUR VOTE COUNTS!
  • Knocked out by Jean-Michel Basquiat in Round 3.
  • Beat Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in the Left Bracket Third Round by a two-vote swing. YOUR VOTE COUNTS! Round 3.


Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume III

In which Michael5000 continues his testy commentary on that ubiquitous internet atlas of our times, Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume III

Note: In cutting and pasting the images (at low resolution and for purposes of critique in a non-commercial forum, yo!) I included "Twisted Sifter's" own attribution.  They aren't live links here, so to see the original you would have to go to the original post and click through from there.

11. "The World's Busiest Air Travel Routes of 2012"

Technical Merit: Indifferent.  I like the big green  irrelevant Antarctica.

Artistic Merit: None attempted.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": It may help one make sense of the aviation industry to realize that there is a lot of air traffic on routes where very large cities are kind of close to each other.  This is especially so where surface transportation is kind of tricky for one reason or another, as on an island county like Japan.

I am not sure if we are expected to be surprised that there is so much aviation action in East Asia.  If we aren't, I'm not sure why anyone other than a transportation junky like myself would find the map interesting (I do!  ...but I bet you don't!).  If we are, it seems like a rather oblique way to make a point made much more forcibly on Map #12.

12. "Visualizing Global Population Density"

Technical Merit: Call me old-fashioned, but I think that a good way of visualizing global population density is looking at a map of global population density.  They are are not hard to find!  Here's a crude but perfectly serviceable one right here:

You could spend a good half-hour noticing interesting stuff on this second map, while the first map tells you only one interesting thing.

Artistic Merit: There is something awfully smug about this map.  "There are more people living inside this circle then there are living outside it," it says.  "I knew that, and you didn't," it says.  "If you were a better person, you wouldn't be so damn ignorant about the peoples of Asia," it says.  "You really should have been paying more attention in school, assuming your teachers weren't trying to hide this information from you," it says. 

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": I actually think understanding the global pattern of population, including but certainly not limited to the crude summary of the first map, is about the biggest step a person can make towards making sense of the world.

13. "Flag Map of the World"

Technical Merit: Qua map, none.

Artistic Merit: The Italian artist Alighiero Boetti made, or had made to his specifications, more than 100 flag map tapestries during the 1970s and 1980s.  They are well-known.  You can see them at MOMA: here's a link.  Since I'm mildly interested in flags and quite interested in maps, people reasonably expect me to swoon over them, but in truth they don't do much for me.  Did "andrewfahmy on Reddit" think he was doing something original?  If so, he must have been kind of dismayed after all that mouse-work to find out that he's just the poor man's Aligheiro Boetti.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": No.

14. "Map of Alcohol Consumption Around the World"

Technical Merit: One of the first things they teach you in map-making class is, if you're going to represent a quantitative sequence of data, you need to have your shading go in some sort of visually logical sequence.  In this case, for instance, a good choice would have been from white through light blues through dark blues to indigo.  The scheme used here, on the other hand, stinks: it's almost impossible for the brain to process olive green as "least" and then walk up through light blue, gold, and grey/brown, light purple, and dark purple.  You can glean data from this map, but it's a hell of a lot of work.  A competent cartographer would make it easy for you to grasp the global pattern at a glance.

Artistic Merit: None.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": I hope it does not come as too much of a surprise that Muslims are not, by and large, heavy drinkers.

15. "Map of Alcoholic Drink Popularity by Country"

Technical Merit: Now this is the proper use of a random hodge-podge of color on a map: to signify non-quantitative data.  It doesn't matter that the colors don't look or feel greater or less than each other, because the categories they represent are not greater or less than each other.

The categories of "beer," "wine," "spirits," "not much at all really," and "other" leave a little to be desired.  Since people in most countries drink a mix of beer, wine, and spirits, picking out the #1 choice as representative of the country as a whole seems a bit weak.  It is not very interesting to know that Brazil is a beer country, for instance, when the drinking choices could be 35% beer, 33% wine, and 32% spirits, or 100% beer.  Just beer.  And then, what of this "other" category?  Here too, what the map doesn't bother to tell us seems a lot more interesting than the banal information it does bother to tell us.

Artistic Merit: None.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Our list has two maps about alcohol on it, because alcohol is amusing, and it's funny when people drink!  It's beer o'clock somewhere!

Next Time Out: Maps 11 - 15

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Hunt v. Ingres!

Readers and voters: Today we begin our journey into the artists whose first name begins with "I".

William Holman Hunt
1827 - 1910


Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
1790 - 1867


Vote for the artist of your choice!  Votes go in the comments.  Commentary and links to additional work are welcome.  Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Element of the Month: Holmium!

January's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 244ish amu
Melting Point: 1461 °C
Boiling Point: 2720 °C

Holmium is one of the lanthanide elements, those mysterious elements between Barium and Hafnium that are so hard to find, yet so easy to forget. Like most of the lanthanides, Holmium was discovered by brainy Swedes in the village quarry at Ytterby. Since they had already beaten the name “Ytterby” to death in naming Ytterium, Yttrium, Terbium, and Erbium, they decided in this case to start in on the name of the nearby capital, Stockholm. Why Holmium and not Stockholmium? That’s nobody’s business but the Swedes’.

Holmium is, of course, a silvery grey metal.

Like the other lanthanides, Holmium is remarkably shy. Being both quite rare and quite reactive, it wouldn’t even dream of occurring in a pure state in nature. Indeed, a patch of monazite sand with a Holmium content of 0.05% percent is considered quite the motherlode, Holmiumwise. By weight, Holmium constitutes about .000014% of the Earth’s crust.

Holmium, apparently

Holmium! Uh! What is it good for?! Well: like other lanthanides, it has a bunch of boutique uses in laser technology, optics, and as a colorant for this and that.

This is interesting: apparently, Holmium is the most magnetic of all the elements! In fact, I have it on good authority that “the magnetic structure of holmium exhibits an incommensurate spin spiral below the Néel temperature of 131.5 K.” (Sutter, Labergerie, Remhof, Zabel, Detlefs, and Grübel, 2001) I have no idea what this means. Maybe if I read Jensen and Mackintosh’s Rare Earth Magnetism: Structures and Excitations I’d start to understand. Now, if you’re thinking “Hey! I have some of them ‘rare earth magnets!’ Maybe I have some Holmium,” it is my unfortunate task to disappoint you. Your rare earth magnets are almost certainly made with an alloy of Neodymium.

And that’s what I have to say about Holmium.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Giulio Romano v. Gilman!

Giulio Romano
1492 - 1546

Thumped by Giotto in Round 1.
Beat Luca Giordano in First Round Elimination.

Harold Gilman
1878 - 1919

Beat Gilbert & George in Round 1 by a two-vote swing. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Thumped on by Giacometti in Round 2.

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting, but likely much longer.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Wednesday Post

Greetings from Alaska!
Through blizzards and unbroken trails the "Musher" will find his way, carrying mails!

This set of postcards were a Christmas gift from BiggestSister5000, who I think must have been trying to give me a sense of what her life is like on The Last Frontier.

C106. Famous Chief Shake's Totem, Wrangell, Alaska


Geo. Shake's Totem, sometimes called The Raven Totem is surmounted by the Raven Creator.  The box is the chief's box, supposed to have spiritual power.  Below is the young Raven, the Creator of man.  Below is the daughter of the Creator and the mother of the young Creator.

C143.  Alaska Dog Team

The most efficient method of transportation in the North during the winter months is by means of dog teams.  Through blizzards and unbroken trails the "Musher" will find his way, carrying mails and provisions to isolated camps of hardy pioneers and prospectors.

C104. Memorial Totem, Sitka, Alaska

The Sitka Totems are nearly all Haida.  They have been donated by the different chiefs to the Sitka Museum.  The most famous of all is the Sitka Memorial Totem.  It was donated by Chief Sunnyheart.  (It is surmounted by the Fog Woman and her children.)  Below that is the Wolf, Eagle and the Bear.  It is a memorial of the potlatch feast when all these families were present.

No. 1400 Eskimo and his Kyak, Alaska

[no caption]

No. 628 Trapper's Cache, Alaska

[no caption]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Infinite Art Tournament, Left Bracket Second Round: Giambologna v. Giorgione!

1529 - 1608

Lost badly to Alberto Giacometti in Round 1.
Dominated snotty contemporary Brits Gilbert and George in First Round Elimination.

c. 1477 - 1510

Beat Luca Giordano by a two-vote spread in Round 1. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!
Lost to Giotto in Round 2 by a two-vote spread. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!

Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting, but likely much longer.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume II

In which Michael5000 continues what he began last week, viz., a commentary on that ubiquitous internet atlas of our times, Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World.

A User's Guide to "Forty Maps that Will Help You Make Sense of the World," Volume II

Note: In cutting and pasting the images (at low resolution and for purposes of critique in a non-commercial forum, yo!) I included "Twisted Sifter's" own attribution.  They aren't live links here, so to see the original you would have to go to the original post and click through from there.

6. "Paid Maternal Leave Around the World"

Technical Merit: In terms of its cartography, this map is a perfectly competent illustration of its own subtitle.

Artistic Merit: None

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": This is another map designed to convey the point "the United States is different from the rest of the world," and it achieves that admirably.  The use of a darkened red further conveys the subtext that the United States is bad in this respect. In terms of making sense of the world, however, the map is crippled by the flamboyant meaninglessness of its data set: "known policies."  Known policies on maternal leave in the U.S. vary by state, for one thing -- federal system, yo! -- and several of the most populous states have generous maternal leave policies; and, although it is by no means universal, neither is it at all uncommon for UnitedStatsian businesses and organizations even outside such states to include paid maternal leave among their benefits.  Now, let us contrast this situation with that in, say, Bolivia, Mali, and Somalia -- or, for a better challenge, Saudi Arabia, India, and China -- and contemplate whether the the Known Policies in these lands are more of a comfort to the average new mother than the United States' lack of such Known Policies.

7. "The Most Common Surnames in Europe by Country"

Technical Merit: Dicey at best.  The choice of red type was unfortunate on top of the valentine-heart pastel base map, the text is poorly placed, and the font sizes are all over the place.  That last bit is especially important, because if you vary the size of the element you are using to display data, it implies that there is a difference in the data itself; in this case, for instance, it looks as though Garcia is more prevalent in Spain than Martin is in France.  Also: what are Luxembourg and Moldova, chopped liver?  Also, the mapmaker needs a do-over on Iceland.  Also, I get the constituent countries of the U.K., but the Faroes?  Really?

But on a more essential level: why a map?  Does this data benefit from being in a cartographic form, rather than in the form of a list?  Maybe/slightly/arguably, on the basis that the names are related to the underlying geographic pattern of European languages.  But then, why the lame base map, since the information would be put in a relevant context if you listed the names on top of a language map?  It wouldn't have to be fancy!  Different colors for Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages would do the trick!

Artistic Merit: Bleh.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": In an extremely limited way at best.

8. "Worldwide Driving Orientation by Country"

Technical Merit: Perfectly adequate

Artistic Merit: None.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Um, what?

9. "Map of Time Zones in Antarctica"

Technical Merit: Well, it's cute.

Artistic Merit: It is certainly very bright.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": You realize, of course, that there are no time zones in Antarctica?  Time of day is, first of all, a human construct, and Antarctica doesn't have a meaningful human population.  Time of day, second of all, relies on the regular sun-up sun-down pattern that is so familiar to those of us on the inhabited areas of the planet, but which rather falls apart as one approaches the poles.

What people do on Antarctic bases is, they chose a time system and run with it.  What the person who made this map did, if he or she was being careful, was to find out what time system the various research stations use, and then extrapolate them out to the territorial claims (which are however defunct under international law) associated with those stations.  Now, this would be a highly defensible approach to take if someone was holding you at gunpoint, forcing you to create a map of the Antarctic time zones.  I imagine, too, that this map might gain a certain currency and possibly even, ugh, use value through being included in this collection.  But it won't help you make sense of the world.  That's because it's a map of time zones in Antarctica, and there aren't time zones in Antarctica.

10. Global Internet Usage Based on Time of Day

Technical Merit: I am not giving this one full shrift, as it is an animation and I'm just giving you a still.  In its full glory, it shows the course of a day and night during the northern hemisphere summer, and as the brighter swath representing daytime moves across the world, you can see that internet usage is more prevalent during the day and evening, and less so in the wee hours of the morning.  It is fun to watch.

On the pro side, it gives you a very strong sense of where the internet action is, and if you have a copy of the world population map on the table in front of you, or in your head, you can by comparison see some interesting things about where the internet is not.  On the snapshot above, I call your attention to the dimness of Nigeria and the West African coast and to the distinct invisibility of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and North Korea and, possibly, Swaziland.  On the con side, maybe, the actual data is obscure enough and granular enough that you have to take the whole thing pretty much on faith.  Any individual dot of whatever color, in other words, is pretty meaningless; the data only makes sense in the aggregate.  But then, in the aggregate is the way we're gaping at it, so that's cool.

Artistic Merit: Oh, I don't know if I'd call it artistic really.

Helps One "Make Sense of the World": Maybe a little?  And maybe if you study the animation at length, you would discover interesting quirks and patterns.  Maybe, I dunno, you can see Spanish internet use decline for the siesta or something.  But this is a problem with animated cartography: unless you have the power to stop, freeze, back-up, and run in slow-motion, your loss of control over the data tends to outweigh any advantage that the map gains in showing you the temporal flow.

Next Time Out: Maps 11 - 15